Pentagon Ponders Foreign Bases

Even as the Pentagon (search) prepares to shutter dozens of military bases in the United States, it is weighing offers from many foreign governments to set up shop on their soil or, in the case of anti-terror ally Afghanistan, stay put more permanently.

The Bush administration is eager to maintain a military presence in Central Asia, a traditional crossroads and lately a haven for terrorists and Islamic extremists. But it has yet to make final arrangements and faces political uncertainties in countries like the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan.

The U.S. military has nearly 1,000 troops stationed at Ganci air base, which is located at Manas airport in Kyrgyzstan. It has been an important logistics and support base for the war in Afghanistan. Air Force KC-135 refueling aircraft and C-130 cargo planes operate from Ganci.

Pentagon officials say they see no sign they will lose the use of Ganci despite the March 24 uprising in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek in which protesters stormed the presidential office, the opposition seized power and President Askar Akayev fled to Russia, where he submitted his resignation.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search), who visited Afghanistan on Wednesday and spent the night in Pakistan, is known to favor keeping the current basing arrangement in Kyrgyzstan, but his vision for a future U.S. military presence elsewhere in Central Asia is not entirely clear.

A U.S. military contingent is based in Uzbekistan, another former Soviet republic that played a key role in providing U.S. forces the staging grounds they needed for the war in Afghanistan.

These bases provide a significant economic lift for the host governments, and public opposition is not nearly as serious as it has been in some traditional U.S. partner countries like Japan and South Korea.

In Kabul on Wednesday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai (search) said he will make a formal request to U.S. President George W. Bush for a long-term security partnership, making permanent a relationship that began when U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 to oust the Taliban regime. He did not say when he would do so.

Karzai made the statement at a joint news conference with Rumsfeld, who was reluctant to discuss the Bush administration's level of interest in giving Afghanistan security guarantees and possibly keeping U.S. troops here indefinitely.

Pressed several times on this point, Rumsfeld said it was a matter for Bush to decide. He noted that the United States has pledged to remain a friend to Afghanistan and help rebuild the country.

But when it comes to a permanent military presence here, "We think more in terms of what we're doing rather than the question of military bases and that type of thing," he said.

In Washington, White House press secretary Scott McClellan (search) said Wednesday that "discussions are ongoing" with Karzai on future security arrangements but he would not comment on Bush's position on a permanent U.S. military presence or other long-term partnership.

It is unclear whether Rumsfeld would favor a long-term military presence in Afghanistan, but some believe he would prefer a more flexible arrangement for U.S. aircraft overflight rights and possibly access to an Afghan air base for occasional training, refueling and other activities. The Pentagon has already made such arrangements with other Central Asian nations and Rumsfeld favors that approach because it is less rigid and less costly.

The U.S. military has been spending about $1 billion a month in Afghanistan, and the end of its mission here — which includes the pursuit of Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden — is nowhere in sight.

At the news conference with Rumsfeld, Karzai appeared eager to talk about his hopes for a permanent relationship with the United States, which he said would be built on economic as well as military pillars.

"The Afghan people want a long-term relationship with the United States," Karzai said. "They want this relationship to be a sustained economic and political relationship and most importantly of all, a strategic security relationship to enable Afghanistan to defend itself, to continue to prosper."